Interview with Adriana M. Brodsky and Darrel B. Lockhart, Presidents of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association
The Latin American Jewish Studies Association (LAJSA) is an academic group based in the United States that studies Judaism in Latin American. Serving as an international network, they connect scholars from different countries and continents, and also the Jewish community in general. In this interview Adriana M. Brodsky and Darrel B. Lockhart, presidents of LAJSA, talk about its history and its influence in the academic scenario of Jewish studies. Judith Laikin Elkin, in her paper on the founding of LAJSA, says “Latin American Jewish studies were at the time a more or less private avocation, unrecognized by universities or publishers”. Why did this happen?
Latin American Jewish studies were certainly on the margins of Jewish studies and Latin American studies. The experience of Jews in Latin America was not considered as important as those of Jews in Europe, the USA, and Israel, just as the experiences of Jews in Latin America was not deemed, because of the numbers and cultural backgrounds, as important as those of other immigrant groups. It was difficult for the generation of scholars before us, then, to assert that their topics of study were worthy of attention and merited publication. This is also due in part to the fact that Latin American studies, as an academic discipline and field of inquiry, was not part of the US Academy until the 1960s.
How has this scenario changed since the founding of LAJSA?
The scenario described above has fortunately changed. Latin American Jewish topics are now more visible in Jewish conferences, and Jewish topics are now part of Latin American conferences. At the organizational level, for example, there is now a Latin American caucus at the Association of Jewish Studies, and which sponsors panels in the annual conferences. There is also a robust presence of panels on Jewish Latin American topics at LASA, for example. Publications on Latin American Jewish studies topics are also much more visible, with publishing series devoted exclusively to these topics (Brill and Academic Studies Press both have book series in Jewish Latin American studies), and with the inclusion of these topics in general publication series and as thematic special issues of academic journals. LAJSA is currently in the process of developing its own journal.
Elkin’s paper also reports the participation of non-academic figures among LAJSA, such as rabbis, Israeli diplomats, and Jewish officials. How are insider/emic and academic/etic perspectives managed in the work of LAJSA?
While LAJSA is primarily an association of academics employed by universities in the USA, Latin America, Israel, and Europe whose research focuses on the Jewish experience in Latin America from a variety of disciplines, we are also open to those who may conduct research outside of academe and whose perspectives are welcome as interesting points of comparison. For example, LAJSA consistently showcases artistic production in our conferences and has encouraged connections with local Jewish communities, so they also support the work done by academics in their countries. Ultimately, we are a community of scholars seeking to understand the past and the present of Jewish life in Latin America from our disciplinary lenses, and LAJSA wishes to retain that focus.
In your website, it is said that the “LAJSA serves as a network for scholars who are working on related themes but who are geographically distant from one another”. Elkin describes the participation of Israeli, French, and US researchers among Latin American researchers (e.g., Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Cuba). Are they international scholars of Latin American Jews, or are they scholars of Judaism in a broader sense?
For the most part, LAJSA membership is comprised of scholars whose work examines all the many aspects of Jewish life in Latin America. Indeed, some do work on other aspects of Jewish studies in a broader sense, including the study of Judaism. A cursory look at the participants to our international conferences (and indeed at some of our regional meetings) reveals both scholars whose research interests have (almost) exclusively focused on Jewish life in Latin America, and scholars of Judaism or other topics who devote only some attention to Jews in Latin America within their broader research interests. LAJSA serves, then, both groups.
According to your website, currently almost all LAJSA board members are researchers from US universities. Why is there not so much participation of professors of Latin American universities among LAJSA board of directors? Are Latin American universities not interested?
While we strive to attain as much disciplinary, linguistic, and geographical diversity as possible, ultimately the constituency of the board depends on who is willing and able to serve a term or terms on the Board of Directors. LAJSA does not count on the support or interest of institutions, whether in the USA, Latin America, or elsewhere, but on the support of individuals whose area of specialty is consistent with the mission of LAJSA. LAJSA also strives to hold its international conferences not always on US university campuses (our most recent international conference was held at Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, July 3–5, 2017); yet LAJSA also depends on financial support from universities for hosting these events.
Could you name some differences between North American Jews and Latin American Jews?
The way this question is posed is fraught with difficulty as it assumes overarching identity categories of “Jews.” The first problem is in assuming that “Latin America” can or should be considered as a single region with shared geographical, cultural, and historical background. For example, the history of Jewish immigration to Argentina and the ways that Jews have been acculturated into Argentine society are as different from that experience in the USA as it is in Cuba, Mexico, or Brazil. Likewise, the Jewish experience in Canada is quite different from that in the USA. Morever, the various Jewish communities in Latin American countries are diverse. The history, presence, and experience of Sephardic and Askenazic Jews in Latin American countries are quite dissimilar, for example, not to mention other Jewish ethnicities such as Mizrahim, Halebi, and Shami communities. In sum, one of the primary goals of LAJSA is to research this vast diversity from the perspectives of anthropology, sociology, history, linguistics, literature, cultural studies, art, and other disciplines in order to better understand the profound and multifaceted richness of Jewish life in Latin America, and to educate those around us to the same.